what the buddha learned about burnout

Karen Armstrong (2001) and Wallis (2007) point out that Siddhartha’s story is very relevant to the struggles of 21st century society as both external and internal representations of current challenges.  Wallis (2007) in particular places the reader of the Buddha’s journey in the position of observer and practitioner of his teachings, not being seduced by the flamboyant language yet open to the potential of transformation.  Just as the man who would become Buddha was confronted with the inequities of his society and the common fate he shared with every human, we too are challenged by the glimpses of incongruence in our lives be it at work, in the home, or in our personal realm.  The clash of values experienced by Siddhartha parallels the value conflict individuals experience when they encounter the incongruence between their organization’s stated mission and its actions or attitudes.  Nakamura (2000) describes the moment of disillusionment and arising distaste in Siddhartha for the life he had; he suggests that the vivid detail of the texts is strong argument for an actual occurrence underlying the legend of renunciation.

Obsessed by the disparity between his beliefs and the reality of life, Siddhartha is said to have become despondent and emotionally numb.  Unable to love his wife and son, unable to take part in the things that once gave him pleasure, at the age of 29 years he resolved to leave behind his royal life to seek the truth of human existence.  However, his decision to leave behind family and privilege may not have been unusual or solely motivated to seek a spiritual path.  Both Armstrong (2001) and Nakamura (2000) point out that the social climate of the times were challenging.  Political upheaval and societal change were harbingers of the eventual destruction of kingdoms and traditional values.

In the face of this erosion of power and culture, Siddhartha stepped into a growing movement against clannish warfare and exploitation.  Although Nakamura (2000) states that he chose to engage in a greater good by deciding to forego his life of privilege and take up the robes of a mendicant, it is difficult to say whether he set out to transform the world and later scriptures suggest altruism was not likely his motivation or intention.  Whatever the rationale, his decision reflects the difficult choice between maintaining the status quo through a wilful blindness to reality and cultivating a willingness to bear witness to the truth of life as it is.  In the context of resolving a values conflict, his decision to seek a deeper truth points to engagement in and not withdrawal from life as the potential resolution to the imbalance.

After many years of practice, Siddhartha, now referred to as Gotama, began to understand the truth he sought was as inaccessible through severe ascetic practices as they had been through a hedonistic lifestyle.  In fact, the process of denying the fundamental reality of nourishing the body was an obstacle to calming the mind and seeing into phenomena with clarity (Hanh, 1991).  Continuing the theme of facing incongruent values, Gotama recognized that living by the values of his rigidly ascetic community had lead to his weakened state; in a moment of physical exhaustion, he accepted nourishment from a young woman and incurred the censure of his ascetic community.  Nevertheless, gaining strength, he resolved to attain deep insight to the truth of living life in balance and sat in meditation until he achieved the realization that he and all beings are already enlightened to the truth of the world (Lopez, 2001; MN 36:12 in Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2005).

He became a Buddha, one who is awake.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro 2012©

what the buddha taught about burnout

The Buddha’s story as burnout and recovery

          The story of Buddhism is at once the story of an individual’s lived experience of his spiritual unfolding and the larger unfolding of a paradigm shift in conceptualizing suffering and its transformation (Suzuki, 1996).  For the purpose of this thesis, the unfolding of the Buddha’s life serves as an exemplar of experiencing and transforming value conflict, the trigger for burnout symptoms. Twenty-six hundred years ago, Gotama, also referred to as Sakyamuni (Humphreys, 1987; Nakamura, 2000), is believed to have lived and taught on the existence, cause, cessation, and transformation of suffering (dukkha).

Given the name Siddhartha, his coming into being was a paradox of loss and gain. His mother died giving him life and, at his naming ceremony, the Brahmins declared him to be one who had achieved the spiritual purpose of all beings (Nakamura, 2000).  They prophesied that if he stayed in a secular life, he would become a great monarch; but if he renounced the world, he would become a Buddha – one who will remove the veil of delusion.  Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father and ruler of the kingdom of Sakka, having no wish to lose his heir to a life of a recluse, asked what would lead to his son’s renunciation; he was told that Siddhartha would see four signs: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renunciate.  In an attempt to prevent this loss, Suddhodana ordered that all such persons be kept from the sight of the young prince.  Although more legend than fact, this story of the future Buddha’s developmental years is an exemplar of way in which reality can be constructed for an individual and how it subtly creates a resistance to change.  Old age, illness, death, and the need to release ourselves from all forms of bondage become natural transitions we deny and life is lived as if youth, well being, mortality and possessions are eternal.

Siddhartha, growing up in his father’s kingdom, was sheltered from these realities and groomed for a life of statesmanship and power.  In his position of heir, he would have been trained in the craft of caring for the people in his kingdom although distanced and disconnected from them.  Politically and culturally, it is likely that Suddhodana and Siddhartha ruled not as protectors of their citizens but as protectors of the land and commodities they possessed (Armstrong, 2001) against the neighbouring kingdoms.  In that sense, their world would not have been very different from that of a corporation whose mission is to provide care to those in their jurisdiction but whose actions may not account for the human face of the organization.  However, Siddhartha inevitably encountered the human face of his kingdom in the form of an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renunciate (Lopez, 2001).  The cocoon constructed by his father fostered a hedonistic lifestyle and it is likely this lifestyle cultivated a set of values removed from the attitudes and struggle of the ordinary person (Wallis, 2007).  Unable to reconcile his life of protected splendour with the harsh truths of aging, illness, and death, Siddhartha found his worldview challenged.  As his realization deepened he understood that despite his privilege, he was not immune to the way life unfolds; he and all beings suffer the same fate (AN 3:35, I 138-40 in Bodhi, 2005; Nakamura, 2000).

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro 2012©